On the list of things I imagined I’d see on this week’s Hell on Wheels: Return to Hell, a dark meditation on grief did not appear. Yet, grief is a subject of Westerns nearly as often as heroism. The West is a harsh place where life is short, and the bereaved make up much of its population. Grief and revenge, then, go hand-in-hand, and surely revenge is a venerable subject for a Western. “Revenge for grievous wounds” might be a better way of describing the theme of this week’s Hell on Wheels.
Ruth’s final act of revenge, closing out the episode—and the month—beautifully framed, beautifully performed, is just the culmination of all this pain and anguish. Eva, too, took revenge—on the man who raped her, and we are led to believe that the same monstrous man raped Louise as well. Louise’s quieter act of vengeance was simply in looking the other way as Eva committed murder. Revenge for perceived pain even tied the Gunderson storyline into the main action. That’s been a bit of a problem, as his strange journey with Brigham Young has largely been a huge tonal shift the past few weeks, but now, mention the name Cullen Bohannon, and we’re back on a trail of deranged vengeance.
Gunderson and Ruth are opposites. Ruth is a good woman, if a bit fragile and a bit wounded. Her loss and grief bring about an act of madness. Gunderson, by contrast, was insane to start with, or at least, since Andersonville. After that, it’s been his own madness that has caused him to perceive an endless need for revenge.
Everything worked in Return to Hell. It was just the right mix of action, suspense, and character work. In the end, though, it’s all about Ezra.
Almost everything about how this child’s death was handled was perfect. Choosing this moment to eschew gore, showing only the horrified faces of Cullen and Ruth, was absolutely correct, even though Hell on Wheels hasn’t shied from the gruesome in the past. The emotional depth of connection between Cullen and Ruth in their grief was exquisite. It feels almost disrespectful to question anything about what we saw; I have to remind myself that this is television, that someone wrote this.
I question burying Ezra alone, just as I questioned it with Elam. Does this community, alone among all American communities, not hold public funerals? Does Ruth, the pastor of Cheyenne’s only church, have no friends who would wish to stand with her in her time of need? The writers could easily have found other ways of showing Cullen and Ruth sharing a moment. This was not the way.
I question Mickey’s easy assumption that no one would shield a child killer, when Sydney Snow was already a child killer, and Naomi witnessed it, and spoke up about it.
Most of all, though, I question the decision to kill Ezra at all. The incredible coincidence–that he was the surviving victim of Gunderson’s murder of the Dutsons–will now remain forever unknown. There will be no denouement where Ezra recognizes Gunderson, where he is proven false before the Mormons, or where Cullen comes to understand that Gunderson was responsible for the boy’s loss just as he was responsible for Cullen’s. What sense does that make?
I wonder, were they simply unable to find a way to write such a culmination that felt true and authentic? Well, then they shouldn’t have given us such a coincidental character, or they should have brought in better writers.
I’m not railing against a senseless death. I think the death was beautifully written, and created important character movement for Ruth and Cullen, and was a meaningful conclusion to the action. Rather, I’m disturbed that this character, Ezra Dutson, never gets to fulfill the plot laid out for him.
As usual, Hell on Wheels this week gave us stunning visuals, including Ruth holding the gun, Louise’s Tarantino-esque naked feet, smoke billowing from a train, and the above shot of Bohannon and Durant running towards the church.